is cultural sociology doomed?

The generally quite good culture miniconference today at the HBS (by the way, that is one heck of a facility) was marred by far too much hand-wringing about how cultural sociology is not taken seriously, not paid attention to, the “ugly stepsister” (someone else’s words, pregnant as they are with sexism) of sociology, and so on. This is not my experience, and seems at odds with the sheer size of the section (second only to sex and gender, and who can compete with sex?).  Bob Wuthnow asked in 1997 whether cultural sociology is doomed. I offer an alternative hypothesis, only partially ironically: marginality is so much a part of cultural sociologists’ self-image that the hand-wringing is actually a form of self-congratulation. (This might make prestige an “inferior good”?) Comments?

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

11 thoughts on “is cultural sociology doomed?”

  1. Marginality is part of a lot of people’s/areas self-identity. It would be a study in itself to figure out who prefers to see themselves as marginal, and why. As opposed to who likes to feel dominant. The social movements section, which started as an insurgency, likes to talk about how big it is and how much social movements work is in the journals now.

    When I hear cultural sociologists or qualitative researchers complaining about feeling marginalized, I think, boy, you have never tried to publish a piece of mathematical sociology outside a niche journal. Talk about marginality!


  2. The suggestion has been made, and seem true, that we cultural sociologists are under-represented in the major journals. Although we are clearly large in size, as a section, and the rumors we “can’t get tenure” are absolutely false, I do wonder about the first claim. If true, how would it effect our diagnosis of this hand wringing?

    (And for what it’s worth, there’s some movement to make the panelists’ comments available to those of you who did not attend. Mine are already here, for those interested few.)


  3. Good point, Jenn, and I largely agree, although I’ve heard others point out that sociological book publishing is weighted the other way. Take a look at the lists of the top publishing houses around Hynes Convention Hall D….


  4. I don’t know if it’s doomed, but I know that all the time and energy spent wrestling with the question “do we matter?” could have been devoted to something much more intellectually meaningful.


  5. I didn’t make the mini-conference, but the diagnoses by by both Andy and olderwoman make sense to me. And there’s an extended history in American sociology of self-positioning outside of the disciplinary “mainstream,” by an otherwise fairly diverse group of sociologists — many of whom it would be difficult to see as entirely “marginal.”

    Since sociology, like other academic disciplines, is defined by fairly steep hierarchies, it would probably make sense to look at the uptake of cultural sociology among elites (in departments, journals, etc.), and then compare that with the sub-discipline’s seeming fairly wide appeal within the association as a whole (as evidenced by the large size of the section). Is the story similar to the one for sex and gender — lots of engagement throughout the discipline, but only partial uptake among elites? Or is something else going on?

    I would have thought the story of cultural sociology was one of rise and (at least partial) domestication within the discipline — not entirely unlike the story Craig Calhoun tells about historical sociology (though the timing of, and impetus for, the rise of cultural sociology was obviously different). Domestication means that the sub-discipline loses at least some of its critical edge — the sort of critical perspective that opponents of the disciplinary “mainstream” frequently associate with being insurgent and/or closer to the margins — but it has the advantage of making sub-disciplinary practitioners more legitimate in the eyes of their disciplinary peers.


  6. Hmmm. This may interest you. I mentioned the original post and my comment to John McCarthy at ASA. He said something like, “The difference is that we never wanted to be part of the mainstream, we saw ourselves as insurgents.” The irony, of course, is that resource mobilization ideas became part of the mainstream. Cultural approaches are part of the new mainstream within the study of social movements. Social movements scholars tend to find the links between what they are doing and other parts of the discipline. Maybe I’m overgeneralizing here, but sometimes when I hear non-movement cultural sociologists talking, they seem particularly intent on explaining why what they do is different from and disconnected with the “rest of sociology” and, of course, unappreciated by it.

    I wonder how much is founder effects. The theoretical and personal openness of the “founders” of CBSM (McCarthy, Tilly, Gamson, Zald in particular), their helpfulness to others, and their interest in engaging new ideas to understand a phenomenon instead of defending their old positions are all legendary.


  7. OW – I couldn’t agree with you more. Newcomers to CBSM, like myself, still greatly benefit from the open culture created by its founders. It’s not to say that CBSMers aren’t rigorous (the sessions this year attest to that), but people in the section are quick to acknowledge one another, give credit to others working outside CBSM, and welcome others to the subfield. Perhaps this also has something to do with its founding conditions, given that the social movement research of the 1970s and early 80s borrowed extensively political sociology, organizational theory, and media studies.


  8. I agree, CBSM rocks in the terms OW wrote about. Sometimes I wish I were more interested in researching movements! But culture rocks in other ways.

    I wonder whether the phenomenon being discussed (which jeremy raised in another post today) might be something like a diffuse network effect, i.e., nobody actually dominates the field so everybody feels marginal. That is, “we” are always smaller than “they” regardless of our size relative to each distinct component of them.


  9. that’s an interesting suggestion, Andy, and i would guess it explains at least some of what’s going on. though work on collaboration and co-citation networks in sociology suggests that our disciplinary networks are actually less diffuse than we sometimes imagine (something that is probably obscured by a good deal of talk about the “mainstream” and its opponents).


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